Friday

18th Oct 2019

Opinion

Revival of hope for EU-Israel ties after elections?

  • After 10 years, could it finally be goodbye to Benjamin Netanyahu? (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)

Last week's election results in Israel should lead to a major shift in Europe's relationship with the country, as well as its overall engagement in the Middle East.

While a new Israeli government has yet to be formed, and its composition may be unclear for a while, the results clearly show Benjamin Netanyahu on the way out of national premiership, after over a decade at the helm.

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The implications cannot be overestimated, for Israel, its neighbours and allies.

The EU and its major stakeholders ought to make some quick yet significant revisions in their policies, if they seek to amount a genuine contribution to higher regional stability and play a more intense role in it.

In recent years, Europe-Israel ties have deteriorated dramatically and the EU position has weakened unprecedentedly.

A growing distance between Washington and Brussels, alongside controversial steps related to the nuclear agreement with Iran, and a freeze in the political process between Israel and the Palestinians, have all led to loss of trust and mutual respect among the top echelon of the mainstream political leadership in Jerusalem and Europe.

The EU has been too weak internally to achieve unanimity and exert effective pressure on Israel.

The Israeli government found it sufficient to rely on its American partner, with several other world powers, including Russia, India and Brazil, next in line.

Deep freeze

The bilateral annual Association Council meetings have not convened for eight years and intergovernmental consultations between Israel and Europe's major powers have been downgraded, suspended or stopped altogether.

A complete, albeit unofficial, halt on upgrading the relations has been in effect.

Now that Israel will either have a unity government, or a narrower coalition, led by former chief of staff Benny Gantz, new opportunities abound.

Both Gantz's Blue & White centrist party and Likud have many excellent people sincerely willing to partner with Europe, who have a fair understanding of the EU and its significance for Israel.

Most of the candidates to become ministers in a future Israeli government realise there is no substitute for Israel to the European partner, neither in Asia nor in South America.

A new government in Israel, together with responsible and pragmatic European leadership, can create fresh momentum, restore strategic dialogue and horizons, and cultivate a reinvigorated EU-Israel partnership, based on a new security paradigm and on mutual awareness to each side's interests, values and concerns.

A pragmatic European approach would include greater understanding of Israel's legitimate security concerns.

It should lead to a new realignment with Washington regarding the Iranian nuclear programme, which now seems more likely in light of Trump's own attempts to negotiate directly with Teheran.

Europe should also dilute expectations for a quick fix of the Palestinian crisis, mostly because it takes two to tango.

Additionally, Europe can help prevent escalation to war in northern Israel, while following the British annulation of the artificial distinction between Hezbollah's terrorist arm and its presumed political.

Generally speaking, the EU should avoid controversial and damaging rhetoric and actions that alienate those in the centre political map of Israel.

It can jumpstart the process of upgrading relations with Israel, irrespective of progress in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Restoring bilateral consultations, periodic Association Council meetings, and maintaining tighter coordination with Jerusalem, would help moderates in future Israeli governments advance true partnership across the Mediterranean.

This may also, indirectly, assist rehabilitating some of Israel's state institutions which have been under attack in recent years, such as the Supreme Court, the attorney general and the police.

The new Israeli government on its part, also has some immediate reparation to do.

Detaching the Netanyahu-era's alliance with Hungary's Viktor Orban and other illiberal regimes in Europe will serve both EU unity and Israel's integrity.

Scraping the deal reached with Poland to rewrite the history of Second World War and exonerate Polish citizens who committed war crimes, falls under the same category.

The Israel-Poland alliance can be built on healthier grounds.

Israel and Europe should guarantee the construction of a natural gas pipeline connecting Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Italy.

More broadly, Israel should do everything in its limited power to help keep Europe united and independent of Russia's grip, because, in the long run a divided Europe, drifting further away from the US is counter to Israeli interests.

Additionally, Israel must prepare the ground for a successful participation in Horizon Europe, the ambitious €100bn EU research and innovation program to succeed Horizon 2020.

Developing understanding and building alliances within the European Commission can help Israel avoid unpleasant surprises such as the one with Horizon 2020, when the commission demanded West Bank Israeli participants not partake in the program.

Commonalities between Europe and Israel span not only shared values, interests and weaknesses as liberal democracies, but include revived hope.

Author bio

Raanan Eliaz is an expert on EU-Israel relations. He created European Leadership Netowrk (ELNET) in 2007 and the Forum of Strategic Dialogue in 2012, both aimed at strengthening political ties between Europe and Israel.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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